Sudden Cardiac Arrest vs Heart Attack: Which Is More Deadly?

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Today I'm going to explain a sudden cardiac arrest vs heart attack and why sudden cardiac arrest is more deadly than a heart attack.  Now, I'm sure you've heard that heart disease is the number one killer among men and women. But what you may or may not know is that cardiac arrest is different from a heart attack, not that you want either.

A heart attack can cause cardiac arrest, but you can have a heart attack without having a cardiac arrest. And you can have cardiac arrest without having a heart attack. Does that seem confusing? Don't worry, because I'm about to break it down. I'm going to explain the difference between cardiac arrest and a heart attack and give you five reasons why a cardiac arrest is more deadly than a heart attack.

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Cardiac Arrest vs Heart Attack

A heart attack occurs when there is a blockage of blood flow to the heart muscle. Whereas with a cardiac arrest, there is an electrical issue, a malfunction in the electricity of the heart.

Heart Attacks

Another big difference when comparing a sudden cardiac arrest vs heart attack is that with a heart attack, you have a narrowing or a blockage in heart arteries or coronary arteries, typically by plaque or atherosclerosis. And when this occurs, it prevents oxygen-rich blood from getting to the heart muscle and that heart muscle dies. With a heart attack, there are typically warning signs. These warning signs could be within seconds, minutes, hours, or months, and you can get symptoms of a heart attack, such as chest pain, tingling in the left arm or both arms, or jaw pain.

The point is that with a heart attack things are not sudden, they're not unexpected. With a heart attack, you may start to get some of these symptoms like chest discomfort, and you may have time to call for help or tell someone oh my gosh, I'm sweating, or my chest is hurting. Or you may even be able to call 911 yourself if you have a heart attack.  So there are warning signs, it's a blockage of heart arteries, and that's what you're dealing with in a heart attack.


sudden cardiac arrest vs heart attack

Be sure to watch my video on heart attack symptoms: seven warning signs you should never ignore after you finish reading this article.


Sudden Cardiac Arrest

Now, with a cardiac arrest, it's sudden, and you don't get the warning signs. A cardiac arrest occurs when there is a sudden and unexpected electrical malfunction of the heart that causes the heart to either stop beating completely or to move in an abnormal, unproductive rhythm. So the heart, even if it doesn't stop completely or if it is moving, it's moving like a bag of worms or in a fibrillation, like ventricular fibrillation, and the heart is not pumping that oxygen-rich blood effectively to the rest of the body.

So with a heart attack, there's blockage of blood flow to the heart. With a cardiac arrest, there is a sudden unexpected malfunction in the electricity of a heart.

Signs and Symptoms of Cardiac Arrest

Let's talk about the signs and symptoms of cardiac arrest and remember, signs are what you see, symptoms are what you feel.

Symptoms of Cardiac Arrest

So what are the symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest? Nothing. There's no warning. You could be walking around talking, feeling fine, and then boom, you drop and you have a cardiac arrest. Now, there are many causes of cardiac arrest, which we'll get into, and sometimes those underlying causes can have certain symptoms, but as far as cardiac arrest itself, there are no symptoms.

Signs of Cardiac Arrest

As far as the signs of a cardiac arrest (what you see), they're not going to be any warning signs, there will be nothing warning you that it's about to happen since it's sudden. But there can be signs that a cardiac arrest has occurred and that it's time for you to leap into action.

What is a sign? Well, if a person drops to the ground and they're lying there looking lifeless, they're not responding to loud noises, they're not responding to shaking or rubbing of the chest, or anything that would typically cause pain or for them to withdraw. That could be a sign that someone's had a cardiac arrest. Also, if they're not breathing, if they have no pulse, or if they have a very weak pulse, and they're not moving, all of these can be signs that someone has had a cardiac arrest and that it's time for you to leap into life-saving action.

causes of cardiac arrest vs heart attack

Causes of Cardiac Arrest

Heart Attack

A heart attack can actually cause cardiac arrest. If you have a heart attack and you've blocked off the blood flow to a section of the heart muscle and that heart muscle is now dead, and then develops into somewhat of a scar tissue. Well, that can interfere with the heart's proper electrical functioning and it could predispose you to cardiac arrest.

Coronary Artery Disease

Also, if you have coronary artery disease or congestive heart failure, that can lead to cardiac arrest, especially if you have a low ejection fraction, meaning that your heart is not pumping out blood efficiently. That could lead to cardiac arrest.


If you have cardiomyopathy, where the heart is stretched, that can affect the electricity of the heart and lead to cardiomyopathy. You can have cardiomyopathy from things like viral infection, like a Coxsackie virus, or even if you've had chemotherapy that has led you to have cardiomyopathy. Sometimes certain habits like excessive use of alcohol can lead to a dilated cardiomyopathy. All of these things can put you at risk for cardiac arrest.


deep venous thrombosis in the leg

Blood Clots

Blood clots can also lead to cardiac arrest. For example, if you have a DVT, deep venous thrombosis in the leg, and it travels up and eventually blocks the proper heart flow, that could lead to cardiac arrest.

Commotio Cordis

Another cause is Commotio Cordis, which is something that typically occurs in adolescents playing sports like baseball or doing martial arts or lacrosse. And it occurs when there is a blow to the chest at the exact right spot and at the exact right time in the electrical cycle of the heart to cause it to go into an abnormal heart rhythm.

Other causes include congenital heart disease, long QT syndrome, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and Brugada syndrome. Also, if you have very high potassium, that could lead to cardiac arrest as well as respiratory failure and drug overdose. Heart valve disease can also lead to cardiac arrest.

cardiac arrest vs heart attack

5 Reasons Why Cardiac Arrest Is More Deadly Than A Heart Attack

You don't want either one, but here are the reasons why cardiac arrest is more deadly than a heart attack.

1. No Warning Signs

At least if you're having a heart attack you may have those warning signs or symptoms of chest pain, sweating, and shortness of breath. And with a heart attack, you may still be able to call 911, call out for help or walk a little bit to get to someplace where maybe someone can see you. But with a cardiac arrest, it's sudden, there are no warning signs.

2. No Immediate Treatment Could Lead To Death

If there is no treatment for a cardiac arrest within minutes, you die. According to the American Heart Association, for every one minute that you go without getting shocked or getting that heart rhythm back with a cardiac arrest, the survival goes down by 10%.

3. Often Leads To Permanent Damage

With a cardiac arrest, there's often permanent damage. There's generally permanent brain damage, permanent lung damage, and there can be permanent heart damage.

4. You Stop Breathing

In a cardiac arrest, you stop breathing. What's more deadly than that?

5. High Risk of Death

Between 70 and 90% of the people who have a cardiac arrest outside of a hospital setting die before they ever make it to the hospital.


Is Cardiac Arrest A Death Sentence?

I know I've given some pretty grim statistics, as I've described cardiac arrest but it's actually not necessarily a death sentence. What is key is acting and acting fast. If you witness someone having a cardiac arrest you must immediately activate EMS, you want to call 911, and you need to leap into action and start CPR.

Even if you're not trained in CPR, go to and at least learn how to do some of the compressions, where you're pushing down on the chest about 100 to 120 times per minute to the beat of the song ♪ Staying alive, staying alive ♪ And you want to do those chest compressions.

cpr training

If you have been trained in CPR, which I strongly recommend that everyone becomes CPR certified, then you can actually administer proper and complete CPR and you do the breaths as well. But even if you don't know how to do the breaths you can just do chest compressions and that can help to save a life.

Meanwhile, you want to get a defibrillator, an AED, or an automated electronic defibrillator. The AEDs are located in most places nowadays. You can even order one to have yourself and they give step-by-step instructions. They're meant for people who are not healthcare providers. So please do not be intimidated by an AED. You hook it up, put the pads on the chest as directed and the AED will tell you if a person needs a shock. Having that shock, and having that defibrillator can save the life and a person who has a cardiac arrest.  So even though the statistics are a bit grim when it comes to cardiac arrest, no, a sudden cardiac arrest is not necessarily a death sentence.


So there you have it, sudden cardiac arrest vs heart attack. If you found this article to be helpful and informative please be sure to share it with the people you care about. Also, be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel if you have not done so already, and I want you to do your best to live your healthiest, happiest life.

Dr. Frita - Frita McRae Fisher, M.D.
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